I know, I know, I know…. many of us are blessed with talents but we don’t know how to combine it with other talents. Many of us are simply satisfied when we upload our creations on YouTube and see an increasing number of visitors and their encouraging comments….. But is that enough?
It is great that the technology of creative tools for film making, photography and music making are affordable today. The greatest challenge in our time is to escape from circumstances and hypes that end up making us even more lonelier than before. Following and being followed by hundreds doesn’t change the fact that we are usually sitting in front of our screens completely alone.
I wan to challenge this behaviour of creating everything alone and sharing it with a virtual and untouchable world.
Are you interested in photography? So let us join and exhibit our photographs in real galleries or halls!
Are you interested in music? Let us combine our compositions and organize a real concert or come up with a huge album.
Are you interested in writing? Let us put together our written stuffs and publish a collection of short stories. poems, essays, etc.
I want to make the the first step and present some of my music composition (below). I am looking for musicians, singers and experts who are interested in combining their talents with mine. I am living in Frankfurt Germany. Please do contact me if you are interested. Looking forward to hear from you….
First off, I would like to thank the Lissan family for giving me this opportunity to introduce myself publicly and also for creating a space where people of different backgrounds and trades could come and share their craft with the world. That’s a great good deed towards the community which I deeply appreciate.
Moving on, I am Helena, a singer and dancer living and creating in Toronto, Canada.
I’ve been in the Toronto African Arts Community for quiet sometime and dabbled into a variety of projects; producing/directing videos, organizing showcases, teaching dance and having fun on stage singing and dancing. My fascination with the arts started early on with Hibre Terit programs that were broadcast throughout Addis Ababa at the time. I used to practice Iskista infront of the bathroom mirror, extra vigourously especially after having watched the 6 o’clock show every evening. Some years later, I had my first chance to appear on stage as a singer and dancer of Tis Abbay Youth Band in Montreal, Canada. On the otherhand, at school, I was lucky to be surrounded by friends who were as passionate about performing as I was. They had the brilliant idea of organizing themselves as a performing group and I did not hesitate to join. We did step dancing and some Hip-Hop/African/Reggae fusion dances rehearsing in people’s backyards or even the street when necessary. This just continued as I moved to Toronto and joined Nouvel Expose (now known as Jaivah, www.Jaivah.com), under the management of my sister Saba (www.SabaSabina.com), my teacher and mentor in many ways.
As I was busy dancing, my brother Rasselas who was a Rap and Hip-Hop enthusiast at the time was busy recording his first and second albums (Pure Science and My Pant’s Saggin’). He would ask me to sing some parts on his tracks from time to time. I found being in the studio alone was awesome! With his support, I began to write and together, under his direction, we released our duo album ‘Guzo Wede Ethiopia’.
I had many joyous moments with those close to me. With their support, I continue to create. My latest project has been working on my debut and long awaited album ‘Tsetita,’ a collection of songs, old and new that was released on August 25th 2011.
Tsetita Tsetita means silence in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, my place of birth. This album is very close to my heart as it chronicles different stages of my life as I passed from adolescence to finding my way around the world as a grown woman. In my youth, my life was fueled by dreams of freedom to reach the peak of the mountain of success. I took many steps and made great efforts into making this dream a reality. I began recording and wrote my very first song “Ande Ken” (an acoustic version of which is included in the album). I found that the search for my soul began at this time as I felt the writing process really allowed me to get in touch with the images of my mind that were the drivers of my reality. I didn’t know this at the time, I just knew that whenever I was emotionally distrought, I was most inspired to write. With time, I believe it allowed me to realize that a lot of my motivations came from pressures of outside forces rather than from within my own heart. This realization brought about ideas that would eventually give birth to Tsetita. I wrote, even in times of confusion where I could not clearly see where I was headed. These ideas continued to brew and I began to see the driving forces behind my ideas and beliefs that came naturally to me, I began to understand the true meaning of wisdom. I found it hidden in the depths of my own mind and to access it, I had to silence all other thoughts that derived from misconceptions of learned habits. This to me is the meaning of Tsetita. This album represents my search for wisdom, it chronicles my journey presenting songs I’ve written, different voices I have embodied, personalities I have carried in different phases of this search. I share with the rest of the world a bit of mine knowing that every person who listens will walk away with something of their own.
We incidentally came across Zewdy in YouTube! An amazing talented young girl. She is already a celebrity in the net. Many of you might know her already. This article is for those like us who didn’t have the chance to see her online. The text below is directly taken from her YouTube site. Link to the source
Hi! I’m Zewdy
If there’s one thing I know, I KNOW I was born to sing!
Born in NYC, raised it JERSEYYYYYYYYYY!
I am ERITREAN & ETHIOPIAN = HABESHA! = AFRICAN!
I tried out for American Idol 5 times - never made it past the 1st round. I never saw Paula, Randy, or Simon.
I am VERY open minded, I would never judge people based on race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.
I wanna thank The Foundation/Secret Society for startin me off on recording, I love y’all & you already know we’ll always be down!
If it weren’t for KHRIS KHAOS, I wouldn’t have gained so many subs so quickly. Khris admires my talent so much that he decided to make videos with me, promoting my channel & just lettin his subscribers & supporters know about me! He is the reason the majority of my subscribers know about me today & to this day he STILL hasn’t stopped supporting me! I really feel like … my Youtube “fame”? Well, I owe it ALL to Khris Khaos.. Man if you’re readin this, I freakin love you & I can’t express my gratitude for everything you have done for me..! ||& a BIG thanks to StarSearchTV on youtube, they reuploaded a couple of my videos & got me soo many views & subs =D you guys rock!I love my family, they support me so much - it’s amazing!
My family is pretty artsy - my father [enehabtisha on youtube] sings & plays the guitar =], my older sister plays a bunch of instruments & draws very well, my younger sister [ThatDweebZebeeb on youtube] draws & is into graphic design, & my brother [rep1nyc on youtube] is a street artist, & actually has his own clothing label [check it out at www.rep1.net]
I’m NOT perfect, & I’m not a goody2shoes, so you can just get that image of me out of your heads lol
But I am a good person =]
I love to sing.
I love to dance.
I love to party !!!!!!!
Yooo, I’m a reeally friendly person ! I’m always smiling & bubbly & bouncy, so if you ever saw me in the street, you’d know for SURE it was me ! hehe
If you haven’t got anything nice to say on my channel/video comments - I’ll just block you lol =P
constructive criticism is fine, unless you don’t know what the hell you’re talkin about lmaoo !
I love, love, LOVE Beyonce !
I love Usher !
I love Alanis Morissette.
I love System of a Down.
I love Donnie Hathaway
I love Vybz Kartel !
R&B + Hip Hop = my passion.
Alternative is the sh*t !
Rock rocks !
I love me some Country =].
I have really really cool friends.
One day, everybody is gonna know who I am!
THANK YOU ALL FOR THE LOVE & SUPPORT!!!
KEEP IT COMIN !
As for haters? Nobody kicks a dead dog! Ha! Get on ya job losers ^_^!
There are famous people that accompany us our whole life. We mostly don’t know them personally but they become part of our identity. Our national and international pride is always focused on the result of their extra ordinary creation of art, music, and literature that we learned to reflect as if these works were our own collective treasure. I am sure, for me, that have been also the case when ever I thought and still think about Tilahun. I had no opportunity of attending his concert. I have only seen him on pictures and videos. And yet, I was sure to know him through out my life. “…. kandem hulet sosteeeee fikir dersobignal, gin zare addis honooooo yichawetibignal….” his songs like that which I used to murmur unconsciously when taking a walk or when I am alone have been part of my reality.
Now how is it feel when this great singer who accompanied us our whole life passes away all of a sudden? We saw him getting older with all burdens, misfortunes and illnesses that being-old imposed upon him. While seeing how the natural process of age dimming away his physical charm of the younger years, most of us have usually an evergreen visual image in our mind which lead us to see in him the same old Tilahun.
I heard once how everyone in a concert hall cried watching him being pushed in to the stage on wheelchair. And I asked my self then: “How would have I reacted if I was there on that day?” The answer is obvious because the very thought of that situation has already filled my eyes with tears.
I admired him more knowing that Tilahun hasn’t gave up on life. He didn’t sink in frustration which could have been a natural reaction after such a devastating misfortune. Instead, he wanted to help other diabetic patients and children by establishing a foundation. Though it made me sad to hear his broken sentences and to see his fragile physical appearance on a video as he announced about his project on a press conference, my memory kept on reminding me of his legend by producing images of his golden years in front of my very eyes.
And now, with those images still in mind I dare say: “Tilahun is not dead. Tilahun lives forever”.
Harlem is the destination for immigrants from all around the globe. And they bring with them many different types of music. The World’s Marco Werman tells us about one man who’s pulling together some of what he hears… on and off the street.
Sometimes you can know a lot about a place by the way it sounds. Harlem can be like that. Start at 125th street and walk down Seventh Avenue. Between the merengue, hip-hop and traffic, it’s like a multi-dimensional game of name-that-tune.
Who’s the artist? What’s the song?
But the sounds of Harlem don’t ALWAYS spill out onto the pavement. One sound you DON’T hear out on its streets is Ethiopian rhythm.
Bole2Harlem - “Enseralen Gojo”
That’s in spite of the fact that Ethiopia represents the second largest group of African immigrants in the U.S. after Nigerians. A small group of Ethio-philes though is keeping Addis Ababa’s music alive and very fresh in New York. Dave Schommer who lives on 123rd in Harlem is the brains behind a new CD called “Bole2Harlem.”“I can’t say to you specifically that this record is 100 percent Ethiopian. This is about the experience of being an Ethiopian immigrant, and the experience of living here in Harlem and really reflecting a sound of Harlem.”
Dave Schommer grew up with an academic dad who did research in Ethiopia. When he was a kid, Schommer’s house was filled with stories and art from the horn of Africa. Years later, Schommer worked as a songwriter and producer with the likes of Donna Summer and Carole King. When he wasn’t in the studio, his group of friends included a quickly growing circle of Ethiopians. They all seemed to bond over Ethiopia.
“But it was also about this common listening experience of this whole group of friends that live here in Harlem, and then just walking around and hearing merengue and salsa and reggae and Senegalese and hip-hop, and so it was the element of all these things coming together and saying “you must make this record!” So that’s what we ended up doing.”
“Bole2Harlem the title track was based around this whole idea that when you go there, the cabs are these minivans where they’ll pack as many people in as possible, where they sort of tell you where they’re going and you don’t have to pay the full fare, you pay a portion of the fare, and you have these guys, and one guy drives and the other guy works the door and he calls out where he goes and he slams the side of the door and goes, “Bole, Bole, Bole, Bole, Bole,” that’s how you know you’re going to Bole Road. Or “Arat Kilo, Arat Kilo, Arat Kilo,” or like “Sidis Kilo, Sidis Kilo,” you know, they’ll tell you where they’re going to go, and there’s a certain music to it. And it’s like it’s something that when you leave you miss it. And we were talking about that thing and thinking, “aw wouldn’t it be cool if we just showed up in Addis in our own van, going “Harlem, Harlem, Harlem,” you know, taking people to Harlem.”
The Bole part of Bole2Harlem doesn’t just refer to that big street in Addis. Bole is also the name of a neighborhood — and it’s the name of the city’s airport too. That’s key to Schommer’s concept of this music.
“So the idea was like, if Ethiopia is the exit point of culture, people get on a plane and take what they’ve got to New York, to me, I certainly view Harlem as this sort of entry point of African music into America. That was the idea: what if you took those two things and built a bridge between Bole and Harlem.”
So Dave Schommer and Maki Siraj, the Ethiopian singer he works with on Bole2Harlem, built that bridge. And traffic on that bridge goes in both directions. That’s evident on the track “Harlem2Bole,” in which Harlem’s hip-hop and predominant Senegalese immigrant sounds travel back to Ethiopia.
Unlike many cross-cultural musical fusions, “Bole2Harlem” grew naturally. Schommer and Siraj would hear sounds from Addis Ababa and New York that made them go “eureka.” With the tune Hoya Hoye, eureka happened for Schommer after a trip he and Maki Siraj took to Addis a few years back.
Schommer was in his New York apartment and thinking about the Hoya Hoye dance he had seen performed back in Addis. He says Hoya Hoye comes from a percussive dance Ethiopian kids do during their version of Halloween.
“The kids come out with like a walking stick, and they’ll pound in this rhythm (claps), and they’ll start singing “Hoya, hoye, HO, hoya hoye, HO,” and everybody else is going “HO! bum, bum.” It’s a wonderful tradition, and they’ll take all the sticks they’re using and they’ll add them to a bonfire at the end of the night, and sort of burn away the things from the past year. There was something really cool. So we wanted to do that, and then I realized this tempo (claps again), and I walked across the street to get some jerk chicken, and there’s this hip-hop track, “boom, boom, bam, boom, boom, bam,” and I was like “Oh man, that’s hoya hoye, I got to put it together.”
More surprises were in store for Dave Schommer as he returned from the Jamaican jerk chicken place. He heard the sound of a choir in a Harlem church singing a chorus, “Feeling all right!” That refrain entered the tune.
And so did a blues scale that Schommer realized was an abbreviated version of an Ethiopian scale. The song was almost written by the time Schommer walked back in the front door of his apartment.
Ethiopia had a golden age of music in the 1960s. A curfew under the oppressive regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in the 70s all but dried up the nightlife and talent in Ethiopia.
Now, musical life there is slowly starting back up. And as Ethiopians travel to and from New York, new musical ideas are making the transit as well.
Dave Schommer and Maki Siraj’s “Bole2Harlem” project shows how those ideas get turned into very cool songs.
Eskesta Dancing from the Shoulder
University of Haifa Student Dancers from Ethiopia
by Mordechai Beck
Yossi Tzagay moves his head and shoulders back and forth as though they were only temporarily attached to the rest of his body. The gasps he elicits in the audience give way to laughter at the pure virtuosity of his flowing movements. Soon he is joined by fellow dancers. Some of them copy his graceful movements with their heads and shoulders and others make sympathetic gestures with their bodies, gyrating and turning to the throbbing beat of the nearby drummers. After a few minutes, the dancers are joined by students of the Rubin Academy who have been invited to participate in this special class of Israels latest ethnic dance group, Eskesta, an Amharic name meaning appropriately enough “Shoulder Dance”.
The students more or less the same age as the members of the group giggle nervously as they try out these strange body and head movements, although somehow their metabolism does not seem built for these acrobatics. But being the serious students they are they are soon copying the exotic gestures as best as their occidental bodies allow them.
“This is a very typical movement for Ethiopians,” explains Ruth Eshel, who is founder and director of the project. “The head and shoulder movements go back to tribal life in Ethiopia. It is the most significant movement for them, the basis of the dance form, and it has had a significant influence on the dance group.”
Another source of inspiration is the ritual and prayers of the Ethiopian synagogue of holy days such as the Sabbath and festivals or those derived from the Jewish life cycle, such as weddings and funerals. One of the dances in Eskestas repertoire is based directly on a dance performed (by men and women together) in the synagogue on Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement. If dancing in synagogue on the holiest day of the year seems strange to western eyes, the members of Eskesta point out that the aim of the dance is twofold to jump and become tired in order to be rid of ones sins and be purified, and in a state of purification to reach a level of joy that will allow the members of the congregation to reach Jerusalem.
“This is what we did in the synagogue in Ethiopia, and it is this same dance we perform on stage,” explains Aviva Alkamo, one of the five lithesome women dancers in the present troupe.
Eshel first encountered Ethiopian dance movements when four Ethiopian immigrant students joined her choreography course at Haifa University. “When I saw them,” she recalls, “something went through my mind. After a few weeks, I asked them if they were interested in forming a dance troupe. It was a dream Id had since the time Id researched Ethiopian dance some years beforehand. They said yes and through them I was able to contact Ethiopian students from other departments who expressed a similar interest. However, what was in their minds and what was in mine were two different things. They thought in terms of commercial folk dancing like they had seen on Ethiopian television. I told them that this was certainly not my idea at all. At first, they didnt really understand me, but they trusted me.”
“The challenge was how to base a contemporary art form on their indigenous culture. The starting point was not folk dancing, which I believe should be left untouched. The starting point was to be found in subjects. Having previously researched the community for a period of five years, I was able to suggest some possibilities to complement the groups own ideas. I then used the suggestions as a basis for improvisations. This was a totally novel concept for them. I asked them to improvise without music, to close their eyes so as to be undisturbed by any outside influence. I wanted the movements to come from deep within themselves. I stressed all the time that I did not want them to do any movement merely to impress me. They should simply dance with honesty, and I would find ways of using what came out. To make sure, we captured their improvisations we videoed all the rehearsals.”
“Initially, their tendency was to be too realistic, not sufficiently abstract. The improvisations continued nevertheless until one day, after about three months, they revolted. They couldnt see that out of these everyday movements of theirs you could create dance. I knew then that this was the time to start to choreograph. I selected certain of the movements and decided on a certain number of themes on which to focus.”
“I tried as much as possible to retain their sense of timing, use of space and their natural energy. It was important not to impose movement from another style. While the selections, concepts and abstractions were mine, the dance styles were theirs, so the result was both authentic and extremely modern.”
Eshel, a well-known dancer, choreographer and critic for the daily newspaper, Haaretz, points out that despite obvious parallels, Eskesta is different from the famous Yemenite dance troupe, Inbal.* “In the 1950s, when Sara Levi-Tanai got Inbal started,” recalls Eshel “she was faced with similar problems. What they did in Inbal was to take basic motifs from the Yemenite Jewish tradition and turn them into an art form. I wanted to utilize these youngsters purity of movement before it was too late, and to create a novel dance form one which would connect to their personal biographies, but formed and shaped by the demands of an ultra-contemporary dance form. I did not want kitsch, or stuff for tourists. I wanted an authentic art form. Even as I was crystallizing my ideas I realized that I was taking on a huge challenge, one which might simply fail.”
The young dancers were all born in Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel either in “Operation Solomon” (1980s) or “Operation Moses” (1990s): “Their experience was in many cases horrendous. People lost parents, family members and friends on the way. This year, at their own suggestion, we worked on the subject of the epic journey through the Sudan desert in which some of them participated. The dance is a way for them to express themselves and narrate what happened. A kes (Ethiopian communal rabbi) taught us the funeral prayers which take up a substantial part of the work.”
As if their journey was not traumatic enough, when they eventually reached Israel, the Ethiopians found themselves as strangers in a strange country, a millenium apart in culture and outlook. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the poorest continent; Israel is one of the worlds leading countries in many spheres, including hi-tech, industry, and social innovation. In addition, the immigrants had the problem of language: many of them were not literate even in Amharic their own native tongue, and their very identity as Jews was constantly questioned.
The students who were to form Eskesta are in many ways bridge builders. On the one hand they want to be accepted by their Israeli peers and integrate into their new environment; on the other, they wish to preserve and develop their own traditions which are almost entirely unknown in Israel.
“The Israeli audiences received them wonderfully. What surprised the public was not only the quality of the movements but also the inner concentration. Ethiopians, on the other hand, were divided in their opinion: some expected to see westernized folk dancing; some said that they did not understand the meaning of the movements; others adored them.”
Despite her apprehensions, as soon as she began working with the group, Eshel “felt like one of them. In the past Id based a lot of my own work on everyday movements. So we had this natural sympathy. In order to create a rapport,” explains Eshel, “we held sessions about their background, about what they remembered from their past, about the Ethiopian Jewish tradition, about their experiences on their way to Israel, some of which were extremely traumatic. Though they are extremely shy the girls especially we managed to collect enough material to begin the dance project. This process of gathering material about life back in Ethiopia is beginning to take hold within the community. The father of one of the dancers, Yeshalem Pakado, is putting together a collection of stories concerning Ethiopian Jewish traditions.”
Within the first year, Eshel and her group of a dozen young men and women had managed to create a new art form. “It is built on the basic movements that recall Ethiopia as well as games that the members of the group used to play as children, but it has also been shaped by the needs of performance. We added music on traditional Ethiopian instruments, the krar, flute, drums and mesenko. The dancers sing, and in some place utilize the silence. Original songs were composed by Zena Adhanani who is a dancer and singer well-known in the Ethiopian community. Costumes were specially designed to emphasize the origins of the group light off-white loose trousers and shirts for the men and simple white dresses for the women.”
Eshel, whose own career as a dancer was curtailed by a disastrous car accident, is as much a mother to the group as their professional coach. “Though they were educated here,” she observes, “they still have an Ethiopian sense of time. They run their lives in a different rhythm. They are not used to the rigid discipline that characterizes western choreography. Yet it is more than fun for them. They feel that they are serving their community. This is extremely important in terms of the enthusiasm and dedication that they bring to their work. Plus the fact that they are students with all the usual problems of keeping up with their studies, doing their assignments, and so on. Their problem is to translate their motivation and enthusiasm into commitment. Some of the lecturers have told me that since the advent of Eskesta the students feel more respected and, in some cases at least, this has had a favourable impact on their academic performance.”
Inevitably, some of the earlier students dropped out, but others replaced them so that today there is a fairly stable core group who work together, rehearse and perform. In fact, an indication of their success is that every week they have to turn down requests by youngsters wishing to join the troupe, especially from the 200 or more Ethiopian students studying at the University of Haifa.
The groups first hour-long programme included liturgy, instrumental music, two authentic folkdances from the areas of Tigre and Gondar, and a prayer suite, partly based on the ancient Gez language, in contrast to Amharic which is what the group generally speak among themselves. In order to research the piece the dancers had to confer with a kes who was deeply moved by the youngsters interest in wanting to retain and develop their ancient traditions. A second work is based on the daily cleansing ritual that is part of the Ethiopian Jewish tradition.
So far the group has appeared all over Israel, and has represented the country abroad, including at the 1998 Ravenna International Music Festival. It is now being considered for inclusion in the next Israel Festival. “Perhaps the most interesting performance,” says Eshel “was their recent appearance before an audience of 600 people in Addis Ababa including all the ministers of the Ethiopian government, diplomats and prominent local dignitaries. What amazed the Ethiopian audience was to see how their own ethnic tradition had been transformed into an authentic art form. They had expected the usual touristic treatment and simply had no idea that such a thing was possible. It was a marvellous experience for all of us.”
As much as she is pleased with the reception they have received, Ruth Eshel is careful not to over-expose the group. “Ive restricted their performances to two or three times a month, although we could perform far more if we accepted every invitation we get. I simply dont want them to overdo it at this stage. They are still students, and really dont have the time to devote to dance. As it is they rehearse twice a week for four hours a time and that is already a major commitment.”
Part of the pressures the group is under reflects the fact that they are all members of an immigrant community that has had more than its share of problems in the absorption process. Their vulnerability in the social, economic and political fields has made them a highly visible element on Israels sociological map. As modest as Eskesta is, it is thus fulfilling a far larger role than being simply a dance group. Each time they perform, the dancers are not merely bringing life to old forms but in a very tangible sense bringing dignity and vitality to an entire immigrant community.
Éthiopiques 23 It must be a great thing to play the mèssenqo by Deanne Sole
The breadth of Ethiopian music made available by the Éthiopiques is one of the series’ great strengths. In 23 albums we’ve crossed from the rustic songs of farmers strumming bluntly on handmade guitars to mid-century pop singers in sharp shirts. Armed with this set of discs we can jump from a thoughtful pianist nun to a set of 12 songs dedicated to a specific instrument, the square-angled, 10-stringed begena harp. Not many countries get such a sustained examination of their musical output unless they are able to fund it wholly themselves, and few of those examinations are as popular outside the source nation as the Éthiopiques have come to be.
Éthiopiques 23 is devoted to Orchestra Ethiopia. It arrives with a lengthy biographical piece from one of the Orchestra’s past leaders, an American Peace Corps volunteer named Charles Sutton who describes the development of the band. Sutton says that he became interested in the group’s brand of southern Ethiopian folk when he stumbled on a room of musicians performing down an Addis Ababa alleyway in 1966. “It must be a great thing to play the mèssengo,” he remembers himself thinking afterwards as he walked back to his hotel.
The mèssengo is a fiddle with a soundbox shaped like a diamond and he did indeed get to play it, as we find out on this album in “Shègitu”. He sings too. We can hear the crowd breaking into waves of applause every time this tall, thin foreigner with his curved flop of hair manages to get his lines out in their native language. His voice is less sure of itself than those of the Ethiopian singers who appear in the rest of the disc, but you can hear that he was up for the challenge, a determined man in spite of the critics who labelled him with the insulting word ferenj, meaning white outsider.
A number of these old tracks have a muffled sound, as if they were recorded in the open air and it drew away some of their precise edges. This muffledness affects some tracks more than others, and some instruments more than others. The beating of drums in “Tennesh Mèkèdda” sounds distant, but the noises of flutes and strange winding instruments on the same track are very clear. The result is like the sound effects from a short cartoon, full of knocks, squeaks, and whees, the noise of unsuspecting animated cats being blattered on the head.
Other songs are more obviously folk-based. “Goraw” is a reworking of the traditional shellèla boasts exchanged by competing warriors before a fight. The boasts here have a ring of formality that in a European would sound mediaeval: knights calling to their rivals. The singer is accompanied by a washent flute and a punctuating rumble of threatening strings from a krar harp. “A discussion of shellèla may be found in Éthiopiques 14,” the liner notes for “Goraw” tell us in case we want to follow our exposure to this war song by learning more. This series has grown so dense that the notes habitually refer backwards as if they were part of an extensive library, which in fact they are. “Other fine Tezetas, as well as a discussion of the genre, may be found on Éthiopiques 10,” they point out in the information for “Tezeta,” while the details for “Kèto Ayqèrem Motu” state that the technique of the harpist on the song “differs, both texturally and melodically, from that of begenist Alèmu Aga, presented in Éthiopiques 11.”
Even if you don’t own all of the albums they’re referring to, you should still come away from these asides with the impression that you’re walking into a musical world that can expand indefinitely, one CD opening out into another, a musician on one disc reminding you of something that happened ten discs before. The out of kilter combination of voice and begena in “Kèto Ayqèrem Motu” harks back to the strangely similar sound of Alèmayèhu Eshèté from the album before it, Éthiopiques 22. It’s as if Eshèté with his fashionable suit and dreamboat hair had pulled this older, slower sound out of a bog where it had been preserved in situ like Tollund Man and sexed it up for a nightclub audience. That wobble swells out and establishes itself as a presence.
Like Eshèté and every other musician in Ethiopia, the Orchestra suffered with the arrival of the dictatorial Derg junta in 1974. In ‘75 the group fell apart. The legacy it left behind, as presented by Buda, is an eerie-sounding one, sitting partway between the countryside folk music atmosphere of Éthiopiques 12 and the modern professionalism of an Eshèté, between trained singing and artless strum. A good, solid folk group—in other words, talented musicians who were willing to tweak the old sounds and not take themselves too seriously while they were doing it. In the photographs that come with the CD almost all of them are smiling.
Francis Falceto-Ethiopia: Diaspora and Return Interviewer: Banning Eyre
Francis Falceto is the creator of the 21-volume, and growing, Ethiopiques CD series on Buda Music. The series gives the most complete picture available of modern Ethiopian music, specializing in the highly productive era of the late 60s and early 70s in Addis, on the eve of the 1974 revolution that ended the long regime of Haile Selassie and launched the 18-year, socialist-military regime known as the Dergue. Ethiopiques includes some traditional music, and some music created since the end of the Dergue in 1991, but it’s great strength is its careful documentation of the extraordinarily creative years leading up to the revolution. Francis Falceto is also the author of a beautiful book, Abyssinie Swing: A Pictorial History of Modern Ethiopian Music (Shama Books). Banning Eyre met Francis in New York in 2005. Here is part two of their conversation, a companion to the Afropop Worldwide, Hip Deep program, “Ethiopia—Diaspora and Return.”
B. E: I want to talk about Ethiopians living in diaspora. After the Ethiopian revolution, there was this enormous movement of people and culture out to other places around the world. I think you first visited Ethiopia during the ‘80s, when this process was well underway. Mengistu Haile Mariam and his brutal Dergue regime were at the height of their power. What was it like?
F. F: I arrived in a county that was under military and Stalinist dictatorship. For me, it was something extraordinary, unimaginable. The most visible thing was military everywhere. No nightlife, because of curfew. Ethiopia had this regime known as Dergue, which installed a continued curfew from 1974, the year they overthrew the emperor Haile Selassie, until the fall of the dictator in 1991. In fact, it was in 1992 that the curfew was cancelled. But imagine, 18 years of curfew in a big city, in a capital city like Addis Adaba. Imagine your city, New York, Washington, a smaller city, for 18 years. No nightlife from 8, 9pm—even if the curfew started at midnight—until 6 in the morning. Nothing. Nobody in the streets, only armed military, and hundreds of dogs also.
Right after the beginning of the revolutionary period, the music scene was destroyed completely. It was difficult to make a living through music, because you could not perform at night. There were almost no more nightclubs. The only nightclubs that were allowed were the big hotels, just on Saturday night, mainly for the diplomats. NGOs and the like. But average people, they could not attend these nightclubs in the big hotel. And you could stay the whole night, locked inside the hotel.
So, you land in a country just to meet the musicians and you fall in the middle of such an incredible landscape. Nothing was possible. In one week I could meet one musician, because it was so difficult to meet the people, to go from one place to another place, police everywhere, suspicion everywhere. That’s the way it started. So after this trip, I made another 2 or 3, and it was the same failure—impossible to finalize anything. In fact, I realized quite quickly that everything was under the control of the government. They wanted to control each and every aspect of the social life, including the music. Even when a friend comes to invite an artist, even if he is a superstar in his country, they want to control it and preferably, they wanted me to invite an official artists, a propaganda artist. That wasn’t my cup of tea at all. That’s why the first three times I went, it was a total failure. In fact, I couldn’t invite who I wanted to until the early ‘90s, after the fall of the dictatorship.
During the Dergue regime, there was no possibility to express yourself, or to make your living as a musician, so many tried to leave, to emigrate, not only because it was impossible to have a job on the musical scene, but also because the situation was terrible. There was not any more freedom, and many people left because they were in danger. So there is a big, big, big immigration. Mostly to America. If you go to Washington DC nowadays, and the surroundings, Alexandria, Virginia, and all these places, you can find little Ethiopia. Many of the brilliant singers of the “golden age” have defected to this region. You can find the great saxophonist, Tésfa-Maryam Kidané, singers like Teshuma Metequ, Muluqèn Mèllèssè, Nawayda Bebe, Tela Guebre, Mogo Sapte, many, many musicians.
B.E:Ethiopians have created strong diaspora communities in the U.S., haven’t they?
F. F: Yes, but Ethiopians are a very special immigrant. Shall I say they are not very good at integrating themselves in the country. They just re-create a kind of little Ethiopia, staying together. And you can observe that since the beginning of this immigration, 30 years back. There is not at all a crossover of Ethiopian music produced in America for the American audience. The Ethiopian musicians stick together, and many of them have even abandoned the scene and are doing other jobs. But a lot of the veterans of the golden age are now based in America. A lot in the Washington, DC area, in Los Angeles, in Texas, in Colorado, in Philadelphia and Chicago. Toronto also, in Canada. In a way, it is a bit of a disaster, because the best elements have left. Most of them did not return after the end of the revolution. They are not in such a good position, living in exile in America. The Ethiopian scene in America is not in very good health, I would say. Unfortunately. Even if there are still a lot of good elements.
B.E:Do these artists perform within the community?
F.F: Only among the community. If you go to 18th Street in Washington DC, you will see dozens of places. Restaurants, nightclubs.
B.E:I have been to some of those places. But do you see great performers like the ones you were naming? I personally have not experienced that.
F.F: Sometimes, but it is more and more rare to meet the giants of the golden age.
B.E:Might you find them at a big concert at a hired hall in the hotel, or something like that?
F.F: Weddings. Weddings are very important for Ethiopians. A wedding can gather hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people. It is a demonstration of power and wealth. If you have a big wedding, and you invite 2000 guests, you invite the most famous singers, even from Ethiopia. It is a big thing.
B.E:So that’s when you might see Mahmoud Ahmed?
F.F: Mahmoud Ahmed used to sing many times. And Tlahoun Gèssèssè. All of the Ethiopian singers, on one day or another, perform for these huge weddings. This immigration, by the way, continued after the end of the revolution. There was a kind of—I don’t know what to call it—an exile syndrome and Ethiopia. As I see it, it is something of a disaster, because the immigration syndrome is, “I am going to El Dorado.” And it is not El Dorado. The style of life is different. You need to work very hard to make your living when you are in America. So many things are different from Ethiopia. It is not a success for many of them. The dream of an immigrant is to come back to his country one day, once he is rich. He can come back and buy house or plan a business, and show off his beautiful car imported from America. It’s very rare the one who can do that, especially among the musicians. Many of them left a good career over there, and have not found a very good life here. This is very sad to observe. I was in DC recently, and I met many of them. It’s sad to see pop stars, knowing how big they used to be, and here they are stuck among themselves. Very often, they fight in clans. It’s a bit of a desperate life. This is not unique to Ethiopian immigrants. It can happen to any immigrants. But it is particularly sad that this music did not crossover, did not reach the American audience in general.
B.E:Well, one artist to tried to do that was Aster Aweke. And she had some success, didn’t she?
F.F: Yes, yes. She was living in America. She is still living in America, but she was invited by a British producer, actually, to produce something to be exposed to the general audience. And she made two brilliant records on Triple Earth records, Aster (1989), and Kabu (1991, Columbia).
B.E:Then what happened?
F.F: I think we should ask her. But I think she has needed to take her career in her own hands, and produce her own material.
B.E:So she has continued to record, but more within the community, is that it?
F.F: This is an important point. What about the Ethiopian productions in America? We should speak first about Ethiopian production in Ethiopian nowadays, I mean in the past 20, 30 years. It is a pure disaster. It’s the one-man band. A synthesizer playing all the lines. It’s very cheap production. Many musicians are discouraged. In the Ethiopian diaspora, in Canada and America, Sweden and England, all the productions are cheap as well. The rule is the keyboard. Apart from the very rare case. There are some Ethiopian producers who have tried to make real bands with real musicians. But it has been discouraged because the market is very small here. Of course, there are several hundred thousand Ethiopians in America, but it’s not big enough to make a market by itself, so the tendency is to make very cheap productions. And this definitely cannot crossover. Did you hear some of the CDs and cassettes that are released here and America?
B.E:Yes. The production is certainly disappointing.
F.F: Even if you listen to Aster’s recent productions, I mean it cannot compare to what she has done in England. And I’m very sorry about that because of course, I am a fan of the golden age of Ethiopian music, but I would like to see this music today very alive, not continuing what the veterans have done, but being still stronger than them, because this is the challenge. They don’t have to imitate the older generation. They have to be better than them. But there is a lack of producers, a lack of arrangers. There is not any more arrangement. When you listen to the old recordings, the ones you find in Éthiopiques, if you listen to the horn lines, for instance, how intermingled, how sophisticated they are, how groovy it is—I don’t see anything comparable nowadays. That’s why I say it’s very sad to see… It’s not decadence. But it’s a bit long to wait for a renaissance. It’s now been 15 years since the new régime came. The musicians can express themselves. They can play the music that they want, produce what they want. Nothing seriously innovative has happened. I see nothing seriously innovative in the picture. Nothing.
B.E:Let’s talk a bit about your Volume 5 Tigrigna. What do we need to know about this music?
F.F: Tigrigna music is one of the most important musics in Ethiopia. You know, Ethiopia is a meeting of several cultures, several populations. Tigrigna is also a language; it’s a language spoken in the Northern Province of Ethiopia, Tigray, and in most of Eritrea, which became independent Eritrea. And in this music the beats are very different from other regions. You have on one hand this Tigrigna music but there is also an Oromo music. Also a people of . Very important, very strong culture, and also different from the music of the Asmhara. The Asmhara used to be the ruler of Ethiopia for a very long time, for some centuries. They were dominant. But apart from them, there are other musical cultures. Not to mention any of the musical cultures of Southern Ethiopia, which are brilliant, incredible, but the access to this musical culture for the capital city Addis Ababa is very little, very reduced. But it shows that in Ethiopia there are many different musics. Tigrigna music is remarkable for its strange beat, very different music from the rest of Ethiopia.
B.E:Now a lot of music that is on that CD Volume 5, it’s mostly from the 70s, some of it a little later. Is this music being recorded in Addis now?
F.F: It has been recorded in Addis, because, I mean, the people from Addis could listen to the music from the North, also. At the time different people from different cultures used to live quite in a good mood altogether. You know Ethiopia is basically a Christian Orthodox country, but there are also a lot of Muslims in Ethiopia, and as they used to listen to music from every corner of Ethiopia there was often a very good mood between Christians and Muslims. It is something which has a bit disappeared, a remarkable mix of different cultures, different languages, different religions, different music, and there was something exceptionally harmonious at the time. This is something which has disappeared now. There are more conflicts. It goes with the time everywhere, but at the time anybody could listen and enjoy Tigrigna music. Like they could enjoy music of the Amhara culture, or another one. Statistically you can read, and you can understand through the record productions that Tigrigna music or Oromo music was a minority in the production.
B.E:And you mentioned that the azmaris were mostly from the North, so is it more of a possibility for the azmaris to enter into the musical production when we’re talking about Tigrayan music?
F.F: There are some azmari also in Tigray, singing in Tigrigna. In Tigrayan they are called something different, called watta. But it’s the same meaning. They use the same instrument, mostly the masenqo, this kind of one-stringed violin, played with a bow. They used sometimes the krar which is a lyre with six strings, but the status of an azmari in the northern provinces of Ethiopia or in Tigray, is the same. Their role is the same.
B.E:What about the music going on with the azmaris today in Addis? These are the traditional minstrel musicians, and from what I hear on Ethiopiques, Volume 18, Aseguèba, there is some interesting music happening there.
F.F: It is very important to mention the azmari, because they’re the only ones who are alive at the moment in Addis Ababa. The azmari musical scene is the most alive musical scene there. I myself, I’m very reluctant to continued to go to nightclubs, to attend and listen to new singers, new bands, one-man bands. It is simply boring. It’s really boring, I am sorry to say. Again, I’m very sorry as a fan of Ethiopian music, I’m very sorry that I don’t see the renaissance coming. I wish it would come one day. But 15 years is a bit long to wait. But you know, we had the same case in Europe. If you look at what was the situation of French music after the Second World War. They had a kind of an invasion of American bands, you know, the big band with cowboy songs. It was several years before chanson francaise became something strong, and adopted by the audience. We had 18 years of the dictatorship. Now it’s been 15 years of… I don’t know how to call it. But obviously, it did not yet bring a new renaissance of the size and strength of the sixties and early seventies.
B.E:And from what we have seen so far, it is not happening in the diaspora either.
F.F: Small-market. Cheap production. No innovation. No provocation I would say. Because an artist should invent. Provoke. He has not to follow the expectations of the audience. An artist is someone who brings things, an innovator. I don’t see anything like this. There is a kind of general laziness, and sluggishness in this production. Probably because the market is so small that they cannot invest seriously in normal and good productions. But, on the other hand, they could think about crossover, and try to develop the audience for this music, but being innovative, investing in more sophisticated production. Maybe it will happen. I wish. But I don’t see anything like this until now. There are some exceptions, of course. I cannot say that all the productions are garbage. Not at all. From time to time, you have a beautiful thing in the middle of all this nowhere and nothing. But not enough to consider as a renaissance.
B.E:All of this really makes one reflect on what a rare and amazing period that was in the sixties and seventies, doesn’t it? And I have to say, the world owes you quite a debt for making all this visible with the series the way you have.
F.F: I’m just a music lover. You know? And my sickness is when I love something I want to share it. This is something that was very difficult for the Ethiopians to understand when I started working on this music. All of them used to tell me, systematically, “But do you think the foreigners will like our music? They don’t understand the language. Why would they like it?” And I would tell them, “Look, I myself. I don’t understand the language. And I love the music. I’m sure it can be adopted by the Western audience. My target is to introduce this music to the Western audience, to expose it to a non-Ethiopian audience, just because it deserves to have a larger audience than the national audience, you see?” By the way, thank you for inviting me. At least that means I have achieved part of my goal, if you like this music, and if you support what I have started. And I wish many other people would come into this musical field, because there are still a lot, a lot of beautiful things to bring to light.
The Éthiopiques series is a small thing compared to the mine that is sleeping there, almost thrown away sometimes, forgotten. There are beautiful tapes in some corners. They have to be brought to light. For me, it is a great thing, and it has been a totally unexpected adventure. I did not start to do this for 20 years. Even when I started Éthiopiques, I thought I would release 12, 13 CDs. And in the meantime, other musicians, other producers came to me. Even singers. They came to me and said, “We would like to be in Éthiopiques. What can we do?” This is welcome. This is great. There is real support from some musicians. There is also a lot of suspicion. Because it’s not easy to be a foreigner when you are in Ethiopia. You are not from the country. What are you doing? Are you making business? It’s always difficult. Even if I’m basically a historian more than a music businessman, sometimes I have to heavily explain what I’m doing. But fortunately, I cannot complain. Many musicians are very supportive of what I’m doing.
B.E: You’ve also put together this wonderful book, Abyssinie Swing: A Pictorial History of Modern Ethiopian Music (Shama Books). It contains wonderful images of the golden age in Addis, and before. Do you think the images and sounds you’ve been working with are alive in the consciousness of today’s Ethiopians, especially in Addis?
F.F: In fact, very little remains, especially in the memories of the people. Imagine that you’re a teenager in 74, the moment that the regime of Haile Selassie falls. Let’s say that you are seventeen, and you want to cruise in the nightclubs, to be a teenager. You cannot, because the revolution comes, the curfew is here, you can do nothing. When this is finished 18 years later you’re 35. Nowadays you are 50. It means all the Ethiopian under 50, which is 9/10s of the population, they have no souvenir at all of the pre-revolutionary period. It is completely out of their memory. There was a photo exhibition of this time, with the elegance of these big bands, with the beautiful swinging Addis. When the youngsters came to see this photo exhibition of the end of the empire, they simply couldn’t believe it. They had no idea this could have happened in their country. So this has totally disappeared. You don’t see any more big band in tuxedos, for instance. Terribly elegant. Not to mention the singers. People simply cannot imagine what it was like in that period, and since then, after the fall of the revolutionary regime, nothing like that has risen again.
B.E:Does this story get told to young Ethiopians now? Is it mentioned on television? Are the songs on your Ethiopiques albums released there, and are they played on the radio?
F.F: This music is still played on the radio. Even nowadays you can listen to the music of the 50s, 60s, 70s. It is very alive. You can find most of this music on cassette in very poor condition because of piracy. Do young Ethiopians find this music interesting? It’s difficult to say. The music in Ethiopia nowadays is completely different. It’s mostly one-man-bands. There are some technological aspects which have terribly influenced the music, not only in Ethiopia. Two are very important. One is the keyboard, electronic keyboards, not only in Ethiopia but in many countries in the world it has totally spoiled the music because keyboard is mostly used as imitation of acoustic instruments. With an electronic keyboard they think they can have horn section just like a real horn section, a string section, bass, a drum, etcetera, etcetera.
So this technological innovation was very influential in destroying the music of the old days. Another technological phenomenon is the arrival of cassette. All this happened about the same time. The first organ synthesizer arrived during the 60s and was dominant throughout the revolutionary period. And cassettes started in in the mid 70s. Even before the end of the empire you had the first cassettes. Okay it’s a cheap, democratic medium to sell music that anybody can do in his kitchen, in his loo, wherever. But with piracy and the bad technical quality of recording and duplication, it’s worse. Piracy also means the producer doesn’t get his income, the artistd don’t get their income. Hence the poverty of the musicians. All that has contributed to killing this music and the musical world.
B.E:Maybe to end on a more positive note, we should recognize the contribution that the Either/Orchestra is making, because that’s something that could make a mark, when a band comes from the other side and then brings Ethiopian music to its home audience.
F.F: This is one of the nicest consequences of the work I started through Éthiopiques. You can find now in many corners of the world musicians, music fans, taking some Ethiopian tunes, just to give their own version, playing covers of Ethiopian tunes. This is done with each and every music, all over the world. Anybody can play, for the good and the bad. It was through the first edition of Ethiopian Groove CD (now, Ethiopiques Volume 13) that the Either/Orchestra picked Ethiopia. By chance, and through one musician of the band, an American band, Morphine. He brought back this CD from France to Boston, and immediately Russ Gershon, the Either/Orchestra band leader, fell in love with this music and started to play some covers.
But what I like in Either Orchestra, on top of the fact that they’re real music lovers, and great musicians one by one, is what they did out of Ethiopian classics. It’s simply great. Okay, there is a specific jazz blend, which is American. But you can recognize Ethiopian music. And I didn’t intend originally when I invited the Either Orchestra to play at at an Ethiopian music Festival in Addis Ababa in January 2004, I did not intend to include this live concert in the series. But concert was great. The response of the Ethiopian audience was great. incredibly emotional. The recording was not bad, and more than not bad, I would say excellent, enough to be released.
B.E:Thanks so much, Francis. You’ve taught us a lot.
Francis Falceto-Ethiopia: Empire and Revolution Interviewer: Banning Eyre…. Part I
Francis Falceto is the creator of the 21-volume, and growing, Ethiopiques CD series on Buda Music. The series gives the most complete picture available of modern Ethiopian music, specializing in the highly productive era of the late 60s and early 70s in Addis, on the eve of the 1974 revolution that ended the long regime of Haile Selassie and launched the 18-year, socialist-military regime known as the Dergue. Ethiopiques includes some traditional music, and some music created since the end of the Dergue in 1991, but it’s great strength is its careful documentation of the extraordinarily creative years leading up to the revolution. Francis Falceto is also the author of a beautiful book, Abyssinie Swing: A Pictorial History of Modern Ethiopian Music (Shama Books). Banning Eyre met Francis in New York in 2005. Here is part one of their conversation, a companion to the Afropop Worldwide, Hip Deep program, Ethiopia—Empire and Revolution. The black and white photographs here come from Abyssinie Swing. Click here for Part 2 of this interivew, Ethiopia: Diaspora and Return.
B.E:Tell me about your personal background, how you came to Ethiopian music?
F.F: My background was music. I started to organize concerts in the mid-70s with some friends in the city. I used to live in the country side in France. We had a non-profit organization to produce concerts. Our music tastes were very, very special. It was between experimental music, free jazz, noise music, industrial and many traditional musics from all around the world. From ‘77 until the late 80s, it wasn’t very fashionable to like these two kinds of music. In the minds of the people, they were very separated. It was rare that in a personal discothèque at home somebody would have both pygmy music and Sonic Youth, you see? We were very into innovation. We made a lot of premiers in the city, Poitier, in west France, like Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, the Residents, and many, many, incredible things. And also, many sorts of traditional music, from Japan, from Africa, from everywhere.
And it happened that, one evening, we were partying, and a friend of ours brought an LP which he had bought in Ethiopia. He was there as a stage manager with a French theatre troupe, touring all over Africa in the French Cultural Centers. And passing by Addis Adaba, taking a walk in the street, hearing music, he went in a music shop and bought this LP of Mahmoud Ahmed. So that night, he played the LP, and I was amazed. “What’s that?” So immediately, I took the LP from him, made some cassettes—at that time it was cassette; this was April, 1984. I sent it to many journalist friends of mine, music reviewers and the like. By the next day, they all called me back, saying, “Francis, what’s that? Where did you get this from? It’s great!” So, immediately I understood that, if these people, supposedly knowledgeable about music by profession, if they don’t know this music, it must be a place to dig, to try to find out if it’s an exception, or if it’s one among many. The next month, I went to Ethiopia to check and invite Mahmoud Ahmed to tour in France and Europe. I was absolutely ignorant about, not only Ethiopian music, at the time, but about Ethiopia itself.
B.E:Amazing. When did the first Éthiopiques CD Come out?
B.E:97? So there were quite some years between that moment of discovery and the actual beginning of the series.
F.F: In fact, the first release was ‘86. This LP of Mahmoud Ahmed on Crammed Disc in Brussels. This was the first release abroad of modern Ethiopian music. It was a kind of fetish for me. This was the LP which opened the doors for Ethiopian music.
B.E:I remember that record very well.
F.F: It was released in 86 in Europe and in America. It got good reviews In the New York Times, John Pareles wrote a beautiful article about the LP. It was praised as one of the five or ten best world music albums of the year.
B.E:It was very striking, amazing to me. It made me very curious about Ethiopia. But the official Ethiopiques series didn’t come for another ten years, right? 1997?
F.F: ’97, yes. But in the meantime, by ’90, I had recorded in Paris and released two CDs: one with Alèmayèhu Eshèté and another with Netsanet Mèllèssè, two brilliant, famous singers with the Walias Band. We were still under the Dergue time. It had been possible to invite them to Europe, but the full band could not come. They did not allow the guitarist or the saxophonist to leave Ethiopia. You used to need an exit visa to leave your country. Can you believe it? It was quite a hard time to complete these recordings: I had to work with some French saxophonists and guitarists to play the guitar and horn lines. And in ‘94, came the second release of golden oldies. That was the first edition of Ethiopian Groove. By the way, it’s in early 94 when the CD was released, a collection of oldies from Kaifa Records, the label belonging to a famous producer Ali Tango. What a beautiful name! So before I started the Éthiopiques series in ’97. There were these four releases in the meantime.
B.E:Let’s talk about Ethiopian history. Tell us what led up to this very fertile environment of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
F.F: In general, all of us are very ignorant about this country, because we are living through clichés that have been here for more than 20 years. We imagine this country as a kind of desert where everybody is dying of famine and hunger. One thing to understand, first of all, is Ethiopia is a highland country. It’s as large as France and Spain together, with 60 million inhabitants, a huge country. Two thirds of it is over 2000 meters in altitude. It’s a green country in fact. And, historically, we need to note that it is the only African country to have been independent for 3000 years. OK, they were invaded by fascist Italians in 1935, but this ended in 1941, so it’s a very short period of non-independence. But the country has existed for 3000 years.
B.E:Did it think of itself as one country? Was it unified in terms of its sense of political identity?
F.F: It was not exactly. 2000 years before, it had not exactly the same borders as today. But basically what’s made the unity of Ethiopia is the altitude, the highlands. It’s a kind of natural fortress from which you can defend against invaders. Another historic point that is very important, which gives a deep identity to this country and this culture, is that they were Christian before us, before France, before Hungary, before Russia, before England. From the early 4th century, meaning more than 1600 years before, they were Christianized. They are still nowadays Christian Orthodox. So it’s a kind of backbone for the culture of this country. This is very, very, very important.
The church had the same role in Ethiopia as the church had in Middle-Age Europe. No king could be a king without the consent of the church. Another historic point is that Ethiopia had its own script, its own writing, almost from eternity. The church has the language Ge’ez, which is the equivalent of Latin for the Catholic Church, for instance. From this Latin, always spoken by the priests in Ethiopia, came Amharic, also Tigrinia and several other languages, just the way Latin gave us French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, and other languages. Ge’ez is a Semitic language, just like Hebrew or Arabic, but written from left to right, not right to left. The design of these letters is really beautiful. So all these points: religion, long history, Christianity, are the core things that make this country absolutely unique in Africa.
B.E:Most of Africa fell to colonial rule in the 19th century. What was going on in Ethiopia then? There must have been attempts to conquer it.
F.F: Of Course. In the 19th century, most of Africa was colonized by the French, English, Portugese, and Germans—except Ethiopia. Italy had decided also to have a colonial empire, and little by little, Italy installed some ports on the coast of the Red Sea, in the northeast of Ethiopia. Actually, nowadays it has become Eritrea. Then little by little, they started to go inland from the coast. In 1896, Italy tried to conquer Ethiopia militarily. But what happened, and this is another unique thing in African history, the army of the Emperor Menelik completely defeated the Italians. This was something that made a big noise all over the world. And right after this incredible victory of an African country, an African king over a colonial country, many delegations, many ambassadors from Russia, from France, from England, even from the US, came to visit Menelik in 1897, ’98, 1900. “Who is this king that can resist the Europeans?” And that started the first modern meeting between Western countries and Ethiopia. I have to say, then, that during the Fascist invasion of the Italians in the late ‘30s when Haile Selassie, who was in exile in England, came back with the support of the British, England tried to colonize Ethiopia. In fact, if you look at a map of colonization in Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, it was just Ethiopia who was missing to be complete and perfect for British colonization. They had everything, from the Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and almost South Africa.
B.E:Yes that was Cecil Rhodes’s vision, that they would have control from Cape to Cairo, right?
F.F: Yes, but Cecil Rhodes was 19th century, so this is another time to colonize Ethiopia. So after this incredible victory of Adwa in 1896, it was very clear that the country intended to remain independent. By 1924, Ethiopia became the first African country to become a member of the Society of Nations, the ancestor of the UN. It was something incredible. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to preserve Ethiopia from Italy’s invasion. The Society of Nations should have defended Ethiopia against this invasion, but many countries thought, “Oh, this is just the remaining African country not to be colonized. Why not this one, too?”
B.E:So that was 1935, but the Italians weren’t there very long?
F.F: By ’41 it was over.
B.E:And Haile Selassie comes back and basically takes control of the country at that point.
F.F: In fact, his reign started in 1917, not immediately as an emperor himself. He was first Prince Regent. There was a queen, the daughter of Emperor Menelik, but the power was in the hands of Regent. At this time he was Ras Tafari, and he became Haile Selassie upon his coronation in 1930. But, in fact, when he was Regent, he was the one to rule the country, and his reign finished in 1974, which means he was the ruler of his country for nearly 60 years, one of the longest reigns in the 20th century.
B.E:So the British helped him come back in 1941, but they were also hoping to manipulate him and take control?
F.F: Exactly, if not to colonize the country properly, at least to control everything. It didn’t work out because Haile Selassie was a very smart ruler and he had other allies, including the Americans and some Europeans countries just to pull and push and fight against the British. By 1952, the British completely left the country.
B.E:Fascinating. During this period, from the Battle of Adwa in 1896 up until the time when Haile Selassie reconfirms his control in the 1940s, what has been happening culturally in Ethiopia?
F.F: It’s deeply related to the victory of Adwa in 1896. As I told you, many countries sent ambassadors to Ethiopia. And it happened that the tsar of Russia sent an ambassador to meet Menelik II. And as a gift, he sent 40 brass instruments and a music teacher. Menelik decided to use them as his royal music. In this sense, the same thing happened in Ethiopia, a non-colonized country, as was happening in the rest of colonized Africa. The European colonialist introduced army bands because they were present. It was through the army bands that modern music started. First of all, they play marching music in the European style, but then the local musicians try to adapt their own music and musical culture with these Western instruments. And that’s the way, all over Africa, modern music, meaning local music played with Western instruments, started. Everywhere, you can see the same thing. Even in many other countries, in Asia, in South America. All this modern music is linked to military music. You find this in Jamaica. The Adwa victory was also a kind of starting point for the development of modern music in Ethiopia. The repertoire of the musicians at the time was limited to the marching music, national anthems of various embassies: France, Russia, America, England, etc. The teacher was probably a Polish guy; his name was Milewski. And this guy tried to teach the Ethiopians to perform marching music.
It was quite difficult, because, in Ethiopia, to be an artist, to be a musicians, is something like to belong to a cast. The traditional musicians, known by the name azmaris are considered as a cast, as they are a bit outside of the society. An average Ethiopian will never play music, you see. Still this type of cast exists nowadays. The way that they look at a musician is a bit despising. They have a very ambivalent position in regard to them. So, they like them for the jokes they can tell, the freedom of speech they have, the way they use double meaning in their songs. But they wouldn’t like their children to get married to such a musician. To set up this marching band, it was a bit difficult to find the right people to blow those instruments. They used to invite people from the Southern provinces, considered almost as slaves; very dark, black people, whereas the average Amharan or Tigrean, who were the dominant population, were quite light-skinned.
There was this kind of racism within the country itself. We have to wait about 20 years to see the development of modern music. In 1924, Ras Tafarai, before he became Emperor Haile Selassie, went on a diplomatic tour on Europe. His first stop was Jerusalem, because for Ethiopians, Jerusalem is a bit like Mecca for the Muslims. Every respectful Ethiopian should be a pilgrim to Jerusalem one day. So before he went to France, England, Sweden, Italy, and Greece, he went to Jerusalem just to go to the tomb of Christ. And he was welcome there by a marching band of young Armenian orphans. This was a few years after the genocide of the Armenian people in Turkey. They were spread all over the region and some landed in Jerusalem. Ras Tafari was amazed by these musicians and immediately made a deal with the Armenian patriarch in order to send them to Ethiopia to become the new royal music. And when he came back from his tour all over Europe, he took them from Port Saïd to Addis Ababa. These forty, again forty, young Armenian orphans became another royal music. Still nowadays, they are known as “Arba Lidjoch” in Amharic, the Ethiopian language, “the forty kids.” The Forty Kids had a music teacher, Kevork Nalbandian. After Kevork, other Nalbandians will come to come to teach Ethiopian musicians, and in the 50s, 60s, early 70s, the nephew of Kevork, Nerses Nalbandian, will become a core person to develop modern music.
B.E:In 1924, when these 40 Armenian children from Jerusalem come, what they really bring is not instruments but expertise, ability, and knowledge. Is that right?
F.F: Yes, especially Kevork Nalbandian, and already his kids were much better than any other Ethiopian musicians when it came to playing marching music. But this music teacher, Kevork Nalbandian, also was the one to write the new national anthem of Ethiopia, for instance. From 1924 until 1974, during those 50 years, the Ethiopian National Anthem had been written by an Armenian. Kevork Nalbandian lived his whole life in Ethiopia and died in the late 50s or early 60s. Then came the Italian invasion, and everything was frozen again.
B.E:You’re talking about 35-41? So Nalbandian is recently arrived; he’s only been there, 8 or 9 years?
F.F: Yes. They had an official contract of four years, while they were performing with this music director, Nerses Nalbandian. And other music teachers were also invited to come to Ethiopia, a Swiss by the name of Nicod, for instance. But with the Italian invasion, nothing could continue. Everything was disbanded. The very serious thing which will announce the blossom of the 50s started right after the war. After 1941, Haile Selassie started to reorganize all the military bands, inviting new music teachers to come. He developed Imperial Body Guard Band, the Police Orchestra, the Army Band. There were many, many institutional bands, all related to governmental institutions. Apart from the military music, they began to develop pop music, dance music, light music, and by the late ‘40s, we hear the emergence of pop music, traditional songs played with a brass section. The real blossoming of that would be 1955, because The Haile Selassie Theatre was inaugurated that year. We can say that from 1955 to the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974, those twenty years were the golden years of modern Ethiopian music.
B.E:Did Selassie himself have a real feeling for this culture and music, or was this just a status thing?
F.F: He wanted, just like every other African country, to have a marching band, just for demonstration. Also to welcome the various ambassadors, protocol for visits. But on top of that, he used to organize, in the palace, Western classical concerts. It happened that, between 1944 and 1948, one of these musical teachers who came from Europe, Alexander Kontorowicz, was a schoolmate of Jascha Heifetz, in the musical school of Vilnius in Lithuania—just to show the level of some of these music teachers. Before he came during these four years to reorganize the music of Ethiopia, he had been responsible for 12 years for the music of King Fuad in Egypt. So you see, there were very strange influences coming into Ethiopia’s modern music.
B.E:Do you think that Haile Selassie was consciously trying to manipulate the course of that music?
F.F: It was totally under his control. Probably not what ended as Ethiopian pop, but he was totally responsible for the development of this military music firstly, and secondarily, light music. As I mentioned, he used to organize these concerts of Western classical music, but also the Haile Selassie Theatre, the Agher Feqer Theatre, which was a kind of national theatre of Ethiopia, started to develop popular music, with singers, which was something new for this country. In front of these big bands, Ethiopian singers started to sing. It wasn’t any more military music, instrumental music; it becomes Ethiopian songs, arranged by all of these music teachers, coming from abroad, teaching themselves Ethiopian arrangements.
So, little by little, the Ethiopian influence in this music was stronger and stronger. Also, we have to keep in mind that after the Second World War, in Ethiopia, like everywhere in the world, the biggest influence was the American big band, Glen Miller and the like. If you consider what happened in Europe, in France, in particular, everybody was listening “In The Mood,” or these kinds of songs. Everywhere, you could see the development of these big bands, playing more or less American music, or local music with influences of jazz big bands. And because there’s this tradition of marching bands with big horn sections, the Ethiopian big bands appeared immediately. You had big civil bands with 10, 15, 20 players, incredible horn sections. This gave the real blend of modern Ethiopian pop music. Until the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974, you could feel this influence of the horn section, coming from the jazz band influence from America post the Second World War.
B.E:Let’s return to the the azmari. We have singers emerging as part of this light music, this early popular music. Are these singers coming from the azmari background?
F.F: Not at all. The azmari remains the azmari, all the time. They are wandering singers, minstrels. They come from the deep countryside, mostly the Northern Provinces, Gondar, Gojam, Welo. And they are wandering minstrels, just like we had in Europe in the middle ages. They have their own instruments—mostly a one-stringed violin with a bow—and they sing everywhere they see some people they can get money from. It can be a party, a wedding, a seasonal festival.
B.E:Like griots in West Africa?
F.F: There are many similarities. When there is a market, every time there are people, they go and sing, praise them to get money from them. Or they can joke with them. They are very famous because, in this country, there’s a hierarchy, because it has been an empire for so many centuries. It’s a feudal regime, in fact. There is no special freedom of speech, and these azmaris, these minstrels, are the ones who are in charge of this freedom of speech. Under the conditions, their lyrics are not open; they must use double meaning in their critiques, for instance. They can criticize the king, the princes, the high people, but not openly. The most famous azmaris are the ones who find the nicest joke, the nicest double meaning. This is very important because we have to know that in Ethiopian culture, they don’t pay so much attention to the music itself. When I say music, I mean the melody, the sound of the instruments. They are fond of, first of all, lyrics. It was something very special, in this culture, to develop instrumental music, or big bands. The main thing, more than a great melody or a great voice, is what the lyrics mean. That is true still today.
B.E:In this period of the 50s, when this popular music is beginning to take shape, bandleaders are looking for singers. If they don’t turn to the azmaris at all, where do they look for singers?
F.F: Almost everywhere. For instance, take the case of Mahmoud Ahmed. Mahmoud Ahmed was not born a singer. He did not belong to a family of azmaris. He was just working in a nightclub where his father had a small job. And it happened that one night, in the early 60s, the singer of the local band was absent, so he said, “Can I try to sing with the band,” and, immediately, the musicians said “Wow, nice voice. We’ll integrate him into the Imperial Body Guard Band.” So, it could go like this. Among the high people, there is one who is quite important. He was the famous General Tsegue Dibu, and the head of the police in the ‘50s, and he was a music lover. He himself played cello. And he wanted the Police Orchestra to have a great string section. So what he used to do, was, in the street, seeing some kids without jobs, he’d ask them if they wanted to work. He’d take them to the Police headquarters, clean them, give them food, new clothes, and schooling, and he would try to intensively teach them cello, violins, things like this. Nobody was basically willing to become a musician in Ethiopia. It had to start with such ways. But the musicians were not recruited from the azmari cast. Not at all.
Azmaris always continued their role as improvisers, wandering in the villages, going up north, following the season of weddings and harvest. They always remained azmaris. Basically, an Ethiopian is a warrior. He will never prefer the job of business or commerce, or the job of a musician. So, even if you were not a pure azmari from ancient decent, but just a singer or guitarist or saxophonist, you were more or less considered an azmari—not a good person to marry one’s kids to.
B.E:So anyone who does take this step of becoming involved with music, either as a horn player, or singer, or even an arranger, they have to really love it, because they’re potentially identifying with something that has low status.
F.F: Yes, of course. But also, keep in mind that all these bands were institutional, were depending on the will of the king, the emperor. All of them belonged either to the army, to the police, to the Haile Selassie Theatre, to the Imperial Guard, Police Band, Haile Selassie Theatre Band, Army Band. These people were on salaries. So it was quite a comfortable situation. It’s not everybody who used to have work, a job, payment, salary. When you are in such a band, you have security also.
B.E:So in that sense, these people had a higher status than the azmaris?
F.F: Oh definitely, because they have a monthly salary, a quite normal job, even if it’s music. It’s only in the late 60s that independent bands start to rise. We still have to consider the period in time, post Second World War. It happens in Ethiopia what happens everywhere in the world, in America, in Europe, in Asia, everywhere. There is the baby boom generation, the generation born after the war who became teenagers in the late 50s, early 6os. Together with this generation, rock and roll came, along with electric guitars, rhythm and blues, soul music. It was a real musical invasion of the world. For the very first time, you could listen to more or less the same music everywhere in the world, even if the original music came from American or Europe.
So you could find some Ethiopian James Browns, Ethiopian Elvis Presleys, but always with a local blend, something special. They were not only simply copycats. Ethiopians are so nationalist, almost chauvinist sometime. They are so proud of their culture they need to inject Ethiopian culture in with the Western influence. It’s not only Western influence that invades Ethiopia, it’s also Ethiopia who uses Western influences. And when you listen, for instance, to singers like Mahmoud Ahmed or Alèmayèhu Eshèté—who is probably the best example of this outrageously Western influence, when he sings like James Brown—there is always something deeply Ethiopian.
But it happened in Ethiopia what happened in Europe or in America. There are deep conflicts between generations, because this new generation, these baby-boomers, they crash in some ways, the traditional cultures of each and every country. This was also my generation, and I remember, when I was a teenager, the fights that I had with my parents. I didn’t want to listen any more to accordions or old French singers Eddie Piaf and things like that. I changed my mind in the meantime, but at that time I was much more into Elvis Presley, rock and roll, rhythm and blues. Even if I didn’t understand anything that was sung in English.
B.E:Were artists like James Brown and Elvis Presley just freely played on the radio in the 50s and 60s in Addis? If you turned on the radio, would you hear all that?
F.F: This started only in the late 60s. James Brown came in the picture in Ethiopia in the mid and late 60s only.
B.E:So does that mean at that time there was sort of a liberalizing of what you could broadcast on the radio, or was it just driven by public taste. I assume the government controlled radio.
F.F: Yes, definitely. Well, it doesn’t change overnight. When the first singers of these institutional bands started some very Western influenced rhythm and blues and soul music, and blended this with Ethiopian music, it was not accepted immediately. It was not a demand of the audience. It was the new generation, the youngest of the musicians, who heard about this music coming from abroad. And there are many reasons for this. Remember, it was a time of the Peace Corps Volunteers. There were several thousand who come in Ethiopia, from the beginning of the 60s. Those youngsters brought with them their records, their guitars, their long hair, their bell-bottom trousers, many things like this. The fight between the generations was also through things like that—external to the music itself. But it was an ensemble of new ideas that was shaking the old society.
And there was another phenomenon. The Americans had a military base in Asmara [today the capital of Eritrea]. This military base had everything, clubs, bars, its own radio, its own TV. They used to receive weekly all the charts from America: from Frank Sinatra to John Coltrane, from country music to James Brown. Through this radio, all the musicians based in Asmara and around could benefit from these influences, which they’d bring later to Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. Many GIs, many young American militaries were musicians, and they played either in the military base, or downtown in the nightclubs of Asmara. So, on one hand, the Peace Corps volunteers, on the other hand, this American military base, well-equipped in all types of Western music up-to-date, plus the travelers, the Ethiopians who went abroad bringing back records. All of this used to feed the young Ethiopian musicians of the time. You find on some old records some funny covers of rock and roll, soul music, rhythm and blues. But again, in spite of this copying of American songs, musicians mostly developed something with a deep Ethiopian blend. One funny thing is, again, because they are so proud of their culture, so nationalist, so chauvinistic sometimes, generally about their own culture, their own country, they were completely closed to the influence of the African neighboring countries.
B.E:So you weren’t getting influence from Congo music, which was so big at that time.
F.F: At that time, not at all.
B.E:Nothing? South Africa, nothing? West Africa, nothing?
F.F: Nothing. I would even add, Haile Selassie was a political genius who made Addis Ababa the capital city OAU, Organization of United Africa in the 1960s. It meant that embassies from all of Africa were suddenly opened in Addis Ababa. With this kind of diplomatic invasion of Ethiopia, we could think or expect that many influences from other Africa nations would settle and develop in Ethiopia. Nothing like this. Not at all. They were very reluctant to adopt other cultures. They felt much closer to American or European music. This must be pointed out. Until very recently there were no African influences in Ethiopia. You could never listen that much music from lets say Zaire rumba, or highlife from Ghana and Nigeria, music from South Africa, from Senegal, Mali, nothing like this. This also is one of the very important reasons why Ethiopian music is so unique, so closed to itself.
B.E:I want to clarify two things. One: the young musicians in the 50s and 60s are getting Western music from Peace Corps volunteers, US military radio, visiting musicians, not at all from Ethiopian state radio, right?
F.F: Little by little, it improved, mostly to answer the need of the audience. It was just young musicians who were real artists, I mean excited by creating new music.
B.E:That’s the other point I want to ask about. The audience did not at first demand this. It was the artist presenting this to the audience? Saying, “Listen to this.”
B.E:So it wasn’t everybody who knew about soul and stuff like that. In the late fifties, before you get to the late sixties. It’s only specialized people or people who’ve sought it out, and they are in fact changing the taste of the general public by presenting this new idea. That’s very interesting, because it is quite different from places like Zimbabwe where Western music was being played on state radio and audiences demanded local groups rock and roll and jazz and Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and all that.
F.F: There was not a blackout on such western music. Not at all. But it was not national radio that initiated the development of western influence. It was mostly this new generation who wanted to leave the institutional bands, and create their own orchestra of 4, 5, 6, 7, pieces. Never mind this huge big band of twenty musicians and more. They wanted to have a set up just like the Rolling Stones or an American soul band. They wanted to imitate this. And they were closer to that than anything else. They were real artists in the sense they wanted to develop, to create something. To present to the general public this new thing, you see.
B.E:Let’s talk about some of the key people who made this happen. And probably the person we should start with is Amha Eshèté. Tell us his story.
F.F: Amha Eshèté is the patron saint of the modern Ethiopian musician, because he was really the first independent producer to support private bands, and to create his own record label. We have to know even record production was in the hands of the emperor, in the hands of the authorities. You could not release an album, a disc, by yourself. It was normally forbidden. But at some point Amha Eshèté thought, “Oh, they will not kill me if I release this disc.”
B.E:So who was he? What was his background?
F.F: He was a baby boomer himself. He had a music shop. He had started to import some of this rock and roll, rhythm and blues, soul, James Brown, and the like, in Ethiopia. Even the import of discs was something not really allowed. You needed a kind of visa to import. So after a few years, he said, “Why don’t we make our own discs?” The officials who are supposed to import and record and manufacture discs, they do nothing. At least nothing for this modern music. So, he took Alèmayèhu Eshèté and recorded a few 45s, one song on each side. He sent his master tape to India. Why India? Because as in many African colonies, there were many Indian merchants in Ethiopia. India was and still is the biggest producer of discs in the world. The discographic industry there is huge. So through this Indian merchant base in Ethiopia he sent his master tapes to India, and after a few weeks he received his 45s. It was a big deal, because the officials started to wake up. I mean when this disc of Alèmayèhu Eshèté, his first one, AE 100, came in Ethiopia it sold like crazy.
B.E:And in what year?
F.F: ’69. Possibly late 68, but early 69. ’69 is a key year for all of these new things. Amha Eshèté had some problems with the authorities, but finally, the emperor decided let this youngster go ahead.
B.E:He personally decided that?
F.F: We don’t know exactly. But he used to decide everything. Of course the official head of the Haile Selassie Theatre and the like, went to complain and say, “What this youngster is doing is against the law.” And finally, after some turmoil, which you can understand through the press at the time, they decided to drop it. And little by little, other producers came, but he remains one of the key persons for the real new pop scene in Ethiopia.
B.E:Tell us about Alèmayèhu Eshèté.
F.F: Alèmayèhu Eshèté used to be a singer of the Police Orchestra. Mahmoud Ahmed and Tlahoun Gèssèssè, used to belong to the Imperial Body Guard Band. They all wanted to leave these institutional bands, but they were paid by the Police Orchestra or Imperial Body Guard Band. Sometimes at night, they’d leave the barracks and go to a nightclub and sing for themselves before some hip audiences, which brought them some problems. You know, they might go to jail 1 or 2 days because of this. But it was not a big deal. You know, very soon, by ’74, this regime is finished and dead.
Usually, the end of a reign has a very developed night life. Many people call it decadence, but it’s almost the contrary. Little by little, the empire, the state, starts to lose its power. In December 1960, there was coup d’etat against Haile Selassie. It failed, but there are several attempts in the following years. We had student movements, we had the ’68 in Europe, but there is something like this also in Ethiopia. And so the whole society was in turmoil. And this has always been favorable to creativity. We can see in many ends of reign or regimes a very highly developed artistic life, night life. As we had swinging London, they had swinging Addis. It was unimaginable parties, incredible fun, where everybody was mixed—the royal family, the nobles, the rich merchants, the bourgeois, the prostitutes, the beauties. You had beauty contests, Miss Ethiopia, even Miss Swing, many, many daily or nightly events that gave a special cache to this scene. So from the mid 60s until the last fifteen years was something. I mean it would have been a dream for me to have been there, you know. (Laughs).
F.F: Yes and it’s difficult for us to imagine that because we have such a miserable vision of Ethiopia. We see this country as a cliché. As a kingdom of hunger and famine.
B.E:Tell me what you can about some of these other important musicians. Take Muluqèn Mèllèssè.
F.F: Muluqèn Mèllèssè was one of the most famous singers in Ethiopia. He started to sing in the Police Orchestra by the age of 13, 14. As I told you before, they used to recruit youngsters to be members of the band, to teach them an instrument—they even had workshops for songwriting, arrangement, even dance. So Muluqen started in one of these institutional bands before he became an independent singer with his own band. He recorded beautiful masterpieces. What is unfortunate for music lovers, but respectable from his point of view, is that by the early 80s he changed his mind about that, and he converted to Pentecostalism, and decided to stop singing pop music. For music lovers it was a big loss, and he remains a big artist who recorded classics in Ethiopia, kind of standards.
B.E:Let’s talk about another singer, Tlahoun Gèssèssè.
F.F: Tlahoun Gèssèssè is the singer in Ethiopia, the voice. Big T big V. He started to sing at the Agher Feqer Mahber, meaning Patriotic Association. It was a kind of national theatre, and he was very young, about 16 or 17 when he starts to sing in this institution. But very quickly he was taken by Imperial Bodyguard Band and he became the main soloist there by the late 50s. Since then until nowadays, he has been the most beloved singer in Ethiopia. He is a kind of icon. Everybody loves him. There are many other singers. But Tlahoun Gèssèssè is a core singer, even if he is not the most easy to listen to for western audiences. He has such a big powerful voice that sometimes you think it’s too much for a Western ear. He had dozens of imitators of course, but none with such vocal talent as Tlahoun himself.
B.E:Maybe an interesting subject to talk about a little bit would be political messages. You talked about how the lyrics are so important and especially among the azmaris there is this tradition of saying things in round-a-bout ways, using words with double meanings.
F.F: They have a name for this, sem-enna-werq, it means “wax-and-gold.” There is a wax meaning and a gold meaning. The wax meaning is the apparent meaning. Just a love song—you can take it as a love song. The gold meaning is something else. It can be a protest song. Somebody like Tlahoun, a member of Imperial Bodyguard Band, was in jail after ’60 because he had a song, a love song called “Altchalkoum,” that meant “I Can’t Stand Any More.” A kind of love story. “She left me I can’t stand any more”—in fact, I can’t stand any more of this regime. And after the failure of the coup d’etat, Tlahoun went to jail for a few weeks. Because by itself the Imperial Bodyguard was involved in the coup d’etat. All the heads of the Imperial Bodyguard were pushing the band to sing double-meaning songs, protest songs in some way. And if you are popular with this protest song, this double-meaning, you become also very popular. Because they could see through the way the audience received it, if the coup d’etat was popular, if they could go with the protest. If the protest song is popular, it means that everybody understands the protest of the singer. And there are many instances of this; this song is one of the most famous.
B.E:Let’s talk about instruments a little bit. There’s a very interesting Ethiopiques volume featuring a musician who plays a lyre believed to be a descendent of King David’s harp. Talk about that but also bring us up to date on the krar. Just in general, give us a bit of an overview on the lyre in Ethiopia.
F.F: Yeah there are different kinds of lyres, especially the krar which is played mostly in the North, a lot in Eritrea, less and less in Ethiopia, unfortunately. But there is one instrument which is unique to Ethiopia it is the begena. The begena is a big lyre, something like one-and-a-half meters. This instrument used to be played by the nobility, by priests and learned people. It was high society. You could not say that a begena player was an azmari. This was an instrument related to religion and nobility. Nowadays the nobility has disappeared, but the begena continues to be played. It was almost destroyed during the revolutionary period because precisely it was related to the nobility which the revolution had abolished, and related to the church, which the Stalinest government did not encourage. So , it has come back slowly through brilliant exponents like Alemu Aga for instance. And nowadays, for the most important religious period of the year, like Christmas, Easter, the radio plays extensively this type of music. But it is not the kind of music you can play during the mass at the church. It is not the type of music you can play in the church. It is played in religious contexts, but it is not an instrument of the church.
B.E:And it’s thought to be extremely old. They call it King David’s harp. What’s the significance of that?
F.F: It’s a kind of legend. It’s difficult historically to demonstrate it because it’s three thousand years. King David was supposedly a lyre player, you know, and as the Ethiopians claim they are descendents of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which is exactly 3000 years ago, it’s part of the historical legacy of the country. I’m not a historian but I’m not sure I would agree with this antiquity of the instrument. But it remains to be demonstrated on both sides.
B.E:And it’s in the popular imagination, the idea.
B.E:I know who we need to talk about. Mulatu Astatké.
F.F: Mulatu Astatké is a very special case. It’s quite unique in the history of Ethiopia and Ethiopian music. He was not the first to be taught abroad, because 30 or 40 years before him, there was a lady who learned piano and violin in Switzerland. But as a modern musician, Mulatu was really the first to be taught abroad. He started his musical studies in England and then in New York, he attended also Berkelee College of Music in Boston. Later on, during his stay in New York, he was in touch with a lot of jazz men and Latin musicians. He was very fond of jazz and Latin music. He was one of the first Africans—this must be mentioned—to record modern African music in the early 60s. Before Manu Dibango, before Fela, and when he came back to Ethiopia in the late 60s, the modernist movement had started already. But he came in time to bring a special blend. Especially his jazz touch. He invented a style—Ethiojazz. But to tell the truth I’m not sure he was influential in terms of introducing Latin music to Ethiopia. I cannot say that the Ethiopian audience became crazy about Latin music, not at all. Again, they are so close to their own roots, if it is too much something from abroad they are reluctant to pick it. So we cannot seriously say that there was Latin invasion in Ethiopia, not at all.
B.E:But you can hear Latin flavor in Mulatu’s arrangements, and you don’t hear that anywhere else.
F.F: No, definitely. That’s why I say he is a unique case. He is a special case because he was the first to be put in such a position. When he came back to Ethiopia he put this in his own composition in his own arrangement. But it was not followed by the other musicians, I would say. It remains that the music that he has recorded at the time is simply gorgeous, great music. Just listen to Éthiopiques, Volume 4, Ethiojazz. For me, it’s a total masterpiece. There are some other musicians on this CD, who we should mention. For instance one of my favorite saxophonists ever in Ethiopia, by the name of Tésfa-Maryam Kidané. Actually he’s living in Virginia now for many years. He left Ethiopia to study at Berkelee College of Music in ’72 and he stayed and settled in America but he’s still active as a musician and is a gorgeous saxophonist. It’s amazing the level of inspiration those musicians had reached at the time.
B.E:Who was the audience for Ethiojazz? Was it a small audience, a specialized, elite audience?
F.F: I mean again, what I’m saying about Latin music, I would say it also about Ethiojazz. Ethiojazz is the thing of Mulatu Astatké, he is the inventor of this style, and I cannot say that there are really followers picking the concept and trying to develop it. It’s simple to understand because he was exposed to the jazz culture, but the other Ethiopians were not. So it was difficult to develop the same thing, parallel things, you see? But again it remains the musical works Mulatu left from this period are simply among the most beautiful productions of the time. You know Ethiopian audiences, they don’t pick everything you play for them. They make their own choices. Of course, he is very respected in Ethiopia, no question about this. I think Ethiopians respect the fact that he was educated abroad, that he was a taught musician, a learned musician, which is not the case for most of the others, who just know music because they were in an institutional band or taught themselves.
For instance, there is the case of the brilliant musician, Girma Beyene, who was a pianist, an arranger, a singer, a composer, a session man. It is unfortunate because he did not have the same destiny as Mulatu Astatké. He had to leave Ethiopia at the Dergue time, and he has a bit disappeared in the Ethiopian diaspora in America. But he left behind a huge collection of productions statistically, dozens and dozens of songs he had participated in the recording of as a singer, as a pianist, as an arranger. You know history sometimes doesn’t pay justice to everybody. I would say Mulatu, because of his background, because of what he has done remains one of the most respected musicians in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, somebody like Girma Beyene has been forgotten. But if you consider Éthiopiques, the productions where Girma Beyene is present, almost every piece is a masterpiece.
B.E:Mulatu also did a lot for popular singers. Probably that was the main thing he did to make money, right?
F.F: Yes. In fact he has recorded very few albums in his own name. When he came back to Ethiopia he was more active as an arranger, and if you listen to Tlahoun Gèssèssè on Éthiopiques 17, I think it is, there are beautiful arrangements of classic songs by Tlahoun Gèssèssè, so he was very influential as an arranger. This is true.
B.E:Great, that’s great. Okay. Let’s see. Oh yes I want to talk a little bit about this other very interesting saxophone player, Gétatchèw Mèkurya?
F.F: Gétatchèw Mèkurya. This is also a very special case. For me, it’s extraordinary. He started to play messenqo at first. And then when he was a teenager, he was recruited right after the Second World War with the Italians in the late 40s. He was recruited by the Municipality Orchestra of Addis Ababa. The Municipality theatre had also its own theatres and bands, and very quickly he started to play saxophone. What is brilliant according to me, he has decided one day to transpose with his saxophone tenor, to transpose a traditional vocal style, of war songs. And when you listen to these war songs, known as shellèla fukara, which are shouting, howling, until you lose your throat—he did that with the saxophone. And the result is it sounds a bit like Albert Ayler and the like. And he started to blow like this by the early 50s, by 53, 54. So when I found his recordings, and checked the dates when he invented this style of music, as I am a music lover, not only of Ethiopian music—I know free jazz, and many other kinds of music—I could compare. But he himself doesn’t know who Albert Ayler is. And, by the way, he started to blow like him so many years before, almost 10 years before. So I thought it was good to point that out, how a traditional vocal style could lead to really modernist, avant-garde saxophone style. I think we have to pay homage to such blowers, because he has invented a form, in some way. He himself, again, has no jazz culture. He doesn’t know anything about Albert Ayler and the like. And the Ethiopians themselves, they love this style of saxophone, not because it is free jazz, but because it reminds them of the vocal style, the war songs. The shouting style. Again, this is nationalism.
B.E:It’s boasting, right? It is the warrior saying how great he is.
F.F: Exactly. It’s boasting. Boasting. And in the booklet of this CD dedicated to Gétatchèw Mèkurya, I have translated some of these war songs, some of these vocal, shelèlla songs. They are saying, “We will kill you. We will cut the balls off you. We will do this, and we will do that.” And when he plays this, each and every Ethiopian can hear behind the saxophone the lyrics to that traditional, war song.
B.E:Now, he is still around, right?
F.F: He is still around, and well.
B.E:Good. And by now, of course, he must have heard all of this free jazz. People have told him that his music sounds like that. What does he make of it now?
F.F: You know what is funny? One of the collateral advantages, I would say, of Éthiopiques is that now, some of these musicians are invited to perform in Europe, or elsewhere. And it happened that recently, Gétatchèw Mèkurya has performed with a free jazz big-band in Holland, crazy people. A free jazz band. And they are simply crazy about Gétatchèw, and Gétatchèw feels at home with them. So sometimes, there are incredible meetings like this, and I’m very pleased that the release on Éthiopiques of his music drove him to meet such musicians. He really feels at home with them. He enjoys so much to blow. Who is the one who will boast the loudest? And musically, the result is incredible.
B.E:So, even though these artists have arrived at this place through completely different paths, they are able to really communicate and the artistic together, despite the fact that the road got them there is so different.
F.F: Oh, yes. There is no problem. The Dutch, they play free jazz. The Ethiopian blows war songs. Aesthetically, formerly, it’s very, very close. So there is no problem to meet you. No problem at all.
B.E:That’s amazing. Finally, I would like to ask also about this artist Asnaqètch Wèrqu, the so-called “lady with the krar.”
F.F: Asnaqètch Wèrqu. She is a krar player, and a singer, but she started her artistic career as an actress, a theater actress, in the early fifties. At this time, to be a woman, and to go on stage, was worse maybe than to be an azmari. Just like in many cultures, including ours. In France, until the late 19th century, early 20th century, theater actresses were considered almost as prostitutes, you see? So she is a pioneer. She established that a woman could be on stage and be an actress. And also, she was a krar player and singer, very famous for her double meaning poems, even though she doesn’t have an azmari family background. She belongs to this culture, and she knows how to handle the double meanings of the lyrics. And because of this, as I told you, the more brilliant you are using the double meanings in your lyrics, the more beloved you are by the audience. And she was very good at that. During more than 30 years, she is to be a very beloved singer and krar player. She still lives in Addis Ababa.
Film Puts a New Focus on the Master of ‘Ethiojazz’
By BEN SISARIO (NYT); The Arts/Cultural Desk The New York Times
From the moment Mr. Jarmusch first heard it, about six years ago, the music got under his skin, he said, and he began seeking it out wherever he could find it. “When I was writing ‘Broken Flowers,’ ” he said by phone from his home in the Catskills, “I was listening to a lot of his music, and I was thinking, ‘How do I get this music into a film that’s set in suburban America?’ It even led me to make the character of Jeffrey Wright of Ethiopian descent.” In the film, Mr. Wright’s character, Mr. Murray’s next-door neighbor, gets him started on his journey and hands him the disc. Several songs by Mr. Astatke are used prominently in the film, and are on the soundtrack album, released by Decca.
Mr. Astatke, a vibraphonist and bandleader, had a suitably cosmopolitan upbringing for a music that blends jazz with funk, Latin music and traditional Ethiopian five-tone scales. Born in 1943 in the western Ethiopian city of Jimma, he was one of the few musicians of his generation to be educated abroad. He went to the Trinity College of Music in London, where he studied clarinet, harmony and theory, and in the early 60’s attended the Schillinger House of Music in Boston, now the Berklee College of Music.
“My whole idea,” he said by phone the other day from his home in Addis Ababa, “was sort of fusion with Ethiopian and jazz and modern music. I started at Berklee this idea of the ‘Ethiojazz’ business. From there I came to New York and I had this group, and what I wanted to do, I did it there.”
His group in New York, the Ethiopian Quintet, was mostly Puerto Rican. He recorded two albums in the 60’s on a small New York label, Worthy. He jammed with Dave Pike, who was Herbie Mann’s vibraphonist at the time, and remembers his time here fondly.
“We had all these big bands,” he said. “And the Village Gate, the Village Vanguard, the Palladium - there were all these clubs around at that time.” He was surprised and delighted to learn that the Vanguard is still in business. “It’s still around?” he said. “Fantastic! Wow!”
Mr. Astatke returned to Ethiopia in the late 60’s and took part in a fertile musical scene there in the waning years of Emperor Haile Selassie, who was deposed in 1974. Establishing himself as a jazz ambassador, he brought the Hammond organ and vibraphone to Ethiopia. “I changed the whole Ethiopian music,” he said without shyness, “combining jazz and fusion with the Ethiopian five-tone scales. Since then my name has been on the very, very top of the Ethiopian musical scene.”
The music of that period, influenced by American funk and soul, is being collected in “Éthiopiques,” a series of albums on the French label Buda Musique, which since the late 90’s has run to 20 volumes. Mr. Astatke’s disc, Vol. 4, is its best seller and has seen a bump in sales since “Broken Flowers” was released in August. It is now selling about 1,800 copies a week, said a spokeswoman for Allegro, the albums’ American distributor; that is equivalent to the sales of a new album by a world music star like Youssou N’Dour.
Last year the Either/Orchestra, led by the saxophonist and composer Russ Gershon, performed in Addis Ababa and met Mr. Astatke. The group has since brought him to the United States for concerts twice, the first times Mr. Astatke had performed in New York in many years. After performing at Joe’s Pub tonight, they will go on a brief Northeastern tour, traveling to Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.
Mr. Astatke said he had been following news of “Broken Flowers” by e-mail (”I’m very far away”) but had not yet seen them film in its entirety. He added, with a laugh, “I’m going to see it in New York.”
Source: The New York Times
by Jesse Kornbluth, for HeadButler.com
I’m not seeing the Jim Jarmusch film until tonight, but acting on a tip from a friend with great taste, I bought the soundtrack yesterday. Talk about ‘heavy rotation’ — I’m already in danger of wearing this CD out. And all because of an aging Ethiopian musician I’d never heard of!
Bear with me on this, because the ingredients sound…odd. Mulatu Astatke grew up in Ethiopia but went abroad to study jazz in America. He was influenced by Miles Davis and John Coltrane — and by the organist Jimmy Smith. What he brought back to Ethiopia was a blend of soul and jazz. Which he then proceeded to blend, once more, with traditional Ethiopian music.
The result is easy to listen to and hard to describe. The horns play cool jazz figures; you could almost mistake them for clarinets. But under that is a groove that could have been created by Booker T and the MGs. And connecting the two are some Ethiopian chords that sound exotic, space-changing, hypnotic.
Think desert cha cha. Cuba goes to Memphis. Desert trance music.
Like nothing you have ever heard before.
Mulatu Astatke is the man in charge of all of it: He writes the music, arranges it, and plays piano, organ, vibes and percussion. Although the Golden Years of this Ethiopian music were ancient history — from 1968 to 1974 — Astatke is still a major figure in Ethiopian music, regularly playing and teaching.
Happily, Jim Jarmusch is one of those directors who not only listens to a lot of music, but looks for a way to integrate it into his films. “Music often leads me,” he says. “I discovered Mulatu Astatke’s music maybe seven years ago, and I was blown away by a few things I found that he had recorded in the late sixties. I was on a hunt for a number of years: I bought some vinyl; some of his jazz stuff; some Latin jazz recorded in the states; other Ethiopian stuff. And then I was like, “Oh, man, how can I get this music in a film? It’s so beautiful and score-like.” Then when I was writing, I was like, “Well, this neighbor [Jeffrey Wright] is Ethiopian-American, I can turn him on to the music.”
There are other musicians on the soundtrack — and four songs by Astatke. I’m told they’re crucial to the feeling of the film. I already know they’re crucial to my jaded ears, which perk up as soon as his songs start. And I feel quite sure I’ll be ordering a CD with much more of his music: the highly-regarded ‘Ethiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-1974.’
You’ll want to be the first on your block to hear this music. Not because of the ‘hip’ factor, though I won’t pretend that’s unimportant. But because of the pure pleasure — this is very happy music, and happy in a smart way. Each time you listen, you hear a little more. With a hundred encounters, you may actually get what this genius is doing.
— by Jesse Kornbluth, for HeadButler.com
Statements and opinions expressed in this article herein are those of the authors. Lissan Magazine accepts no responsibility whatsoever for the content.
It was by sheer coincidence that I met Mr. Jorga, the Saxophonist, a decent and polite person, at a friend’s place in Atlanta, Georgia on a farewell barbeque party. It was mid -summer and we were all sitting outside chatting, drinking cold beer and eating Ethio-barbeque, “Zelzel Tibs be Awazé”. In the middle of this get together, somebody came up with the Wudasse CD and asked me to lend my ears. Man, was I glad I did that! What a groovy experience! It was full of beautiful melodies and incredible musicianship. If you like the soundtrack form Jim Jarmusch’s film “broken flowers”, you will love Wudasse!
///Wudasse album “Selam”///
This is an album which is made with a combination of harmonic knowledge and technical facilities. When Mr Jorga hits the sax, you can feel his personal approach to improvisation. And that is what JAZZ is all about! Filtering the melody, rhythm and song to this magnificent expression like on Ete-Mete!
Wudasse is telling us stories with their Ethio-Jazz sound. It is a phenomenal masterpiece of improvisation and am sure it sets a precedent for all the Ethio-Jazz that will hopefully follow.
Here is the story, so dig in:
Wudasse was born out of the desire of three Ethiopian musicians to express the beauty and grace of Ethiopian music through the language of Jazz. This first offering is unique in several ways. For one, the all the songs on the album were recorded in front of a live audience, which is a rarity in Ethiopian music circles. And then there is the make up of the band, three Ethiopians and two American musicians, brought together by circumstance and their love of music, doing their best to create music they love even under the roughest of circumstances.
So how did it all begin? Well, four years ago Teferi (drums) visits Jorga (saxophone) in Atlanta to attend Fasil’s (bass) wedding. While staying at Jorga’s house, the two rent a drum set and start experimenting and jamming on Ethiopian rhythms and scales. In fact, it turned out that both Jorga and Teferi had similar ideas on how to respectfully adapt Ethiopian scales and rhythms to fit into a Jazz context. Teferi goes back to California, and Fasil and Jorga start performing together in local clubs. Two years later, Teferi joins them in Atlanta and Wudasse was born. Much can also be said about the music creation process. Each band member was equally responsible for the final sound and feel of each song. In fact, most of the songs were arranged with minimal conversation and direction, and all the songs evolved while being repeatedly performed around several Atlanta jazz clubs.
The other songs are as equally fascinating. “Ete Mete” represents the children song which naturally modulates rhythmically from 6/8 to 7/4. “Megemeria”(The Beginning) starts with a slow groove that builds to represent the best of Ethiopian jazz-rock-fusion. “Delega” is an experiment in approaching the 6/8 Chikchika rhythm in 7/4 time. But this might not mean much to all the non-musician music lovers who wouldn’t care less is the song was in 6/2 or 7/8 as long as it grooves hard the touches the soul.